Insights of First-Time Author

AFTER 33 years in the business of selling books, Robert D. Hale is now writing them. ``I have been so in awe of writers all my life that I don't think I ever would have written a novel and sent it off,'' says this bookseller-turned-author.

He attributes his recently published first novel, ``The Elm at the Edge of the Earth,'' to ``the serendipity of all of these elements coming together.''

``These elements'' include Mr. Hale's contacts in the book industry, his unusual childhood, and a natural ability to tell stories.

When Hale was president of the American Booksellers Association in the late '70s, he gave a speech in which he told about some of the people he knew as a young boy. ``I had a very peculiar childhood,'' he explains. After this talk, a well-known writer who was present encouraged him to write about his experiences.

``I said I would, but I didn't,'' Hale confesses. About 10 years later, he began conducting a writers' workshop out of the bookstore he owned in Duxbury, Mass. (He sold the store this summer but still works there and runs the workshop.) A small group of aspiring writers meet every other Thursday night to read and critique each other.

After a while the close-knit group began to ask Hale when he was going to read some of his own writing. In response, Hale began writing character sketches of some of the people he had known as a child.

``My mother had polio and was frequently hospitalized for long periods of time,'' Hale says. For the first 10 years of his life, Hale stayed for extended periods with his aunt, who worked at a county home in western New York. The county home housed people ``who weren't really fit for society for one reason or another,'' he explains.

It took another lecture to launch these characters into a book. This time Hale was asked to speak on truth in fiction. And he used the character sketches as examples. After the lecture, another well-known author was so impressed with what she heard that she called her editor at W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., to tell him about it.

When the editor called and asked to see Hale's book, Hale could only answer truthfully: ``I don't have a book.'' But he sent the character sketches, and when the editor called back he said, ```Yes, you do have a book, you just have to write it.'

``I didn't really think I could do it,'' Hale says. But the desire to share the characters of his childhood overwhelmed this budding writer's skepticism. ``I was standing there listening on the telephone and it's got to be one of the high, high points of my life, because as he was talking, I realized that he knows Mrs. Fleming, [a character in the book]. ... Apparently I had succeeded in giving a true picture because the way he talked about her was the way she was.''

Convinced of the worthiness of his goal, Hale set out to chronicle his childhood experiences at the county home. ``It was sort of like pulling a plug, because it all just poured out. It happened faster than I could write it.'' In fact, he had the book to the publisher in well under a year.

Hale's expectations for the book were tempered by his experience as a bookseller. ``I had no great expectations because I know that first novels sell very few copies generally and don't make a very big splash.''

In fact, he didn't take an advance. ``I wanted the thrill of getting the royalty checks,'' Hale says, ``and I was sure that any advance they gave me I wouldn't really earn.''

He speaks of the difference between his perspective and the attitude of his many friends who are professional writers. They complain that publishers don't promote their books, but ``I've been on the other end of it. I know that it truly doesn't matter: You can stack somebody's book up at the cash register and if customers don't want it, they're not going to buy it. Every author thinks that all people have to do is see their book and they'll buy it. And that isn't what happens.''

Hale views his book as distinctly different from much of what has been popular recently. He calls it an ``old-fashioned story'' about people.

``It just doesn't fit in the minimalist mode,'' he says. ``There's such a slick quality to so much contemporary fiction, and I can't write that way.''

The book is selling well and Hale has already turned down one movie offer. ``One of the reasons that I think people have responded to it is that it is a caring book. It's obvious that the writer cared about the people and the readers then care about the people.''

As a bookseller, Hale is in touch with readers and he shares his insight on the shifting literary appetite. ``I think there's a hunger on the part of readers - and I know there is on the part of book buyers - for a less-glitzy style and less-glitzy books.''

Admittedly, says Hale, the big numbers are still with the glitz. ``But as a bookseller I see that there's this real yearning for something else. People are almost looking for shelter; they're looking for something of a smaller dimension.''

But Hale's most valuable insights may well be those learned as a young boy among outcasts. ``What you see is very seldom what's really there,'' he says. ``In our throwaway society, we are as careless about people as we are about our resources,'' Hale points out.

``The Elm at the Edge of the Earth'' was written in honor of the people young Hale came to know and love. ``I want to show different kinds of love between different kinds of people'' Hale says. ``Anything that I ever write - and I hope now that I've started that I'm going to do a lot of it - will all have to do with people much more than great plots, and situations, and relationships.''

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